Posts Tagged ‘memoir writing’

Quotables: Andrea Jarrell on Her Memoir “I’m the One Who Got Away”

I ask what it was like for Jarrell to navigate the history of her parents before she was born — two people of a different generation, younger then than Jarrell and her own husband are now, and whose story Jarrell had to wind her way through before she was able to fully understand her own.

‘This is where starting out as a fiction writer really helped me,’ she says. ‘Because I began by exploring my parents’ story in fiction, I didn’t have to be so precious with them. In my fiction, they weren’t my parents; they were characters in a story. Both of them had told me so much about what they did and how they felt before I was born, so I had the reality but I also wasn’t trying to ‘remember’ what happened. I was allowing these people to exist separately from my experience of them. It was important to me that I wasn’t trying to own their story but to use it as a touch point to inform mine. Their relationship before I was born became a fable to me — a cautionary tale that informed my life and choices.’”


Read the full article HERE. (Miller, E. Ce, “Andrea Jarrell’s ‘I’m The One Who Got Away’ Is A Memoir Every Modern Love Fan Will Want To Read,”, Sept. 5, 2017.)

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Quotables: Dani Shapiro on the Serial Memoirist’s Plight


“But some readers of memoir are looking for secrets, for complete transparency on the part of the author, as if the point is confession, and the process of reading memoir, a voyeuristic one. This idea of transparency troubles me, and is, I think, at the root of the serial memoirist’s plight. My goal when I sit down to write out of my own circumstances is not to make myself transparent. In fact, I am building an edifice. Stone by stone, I am constructing a story. Brick by brick, I am learning what image, what memory belongs to what. I am arranging the pieces that come my way, as Virginia Woolf suggests in her diary. I am attempting to make a piece of music as clear, as emotionally resonant and orderly, as a sonata. I am striving to make order out of chaos, which is the sweetest pleasure I know. When I succeed, I have a thing, this story, to offer. It isn’t me. It isn’t even a facsimile. I have used my life — rather than my life using me — to make something more beautiful and refined than I could ever be.”

Read the complete essay here:  “When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do” (The New York Times, June 27, 2016)

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Coming Up: Writer to editor, Michelle Berry interviews Allyson Latta

Me with Sheryl Gordon, guest speaker for Turquoise Waters Writers' Retreat in the Kawartha Lakes, July 2016.

Me with Sheryl Gordon, guest speaker for Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat in the Kawartha Lakes, July 2016.

My students have always enjoyed asking questions of the guest authors I’ve brought to my online courses and writers’ retreats (such as Sheryl Gordon, pictured at left), but at the end of the spring session, a few of them said they’d actually like to interview me and find out more about what I do and why — editing, teaching memoir writing, and organizing residential writers’ retreats. In all my years as a creative writing instructor, it never occurred to me to let students “interview” me.

I’m not currently running my courses Memories into Story I and II*, but when I mentioned the students’ comments to novelist and fellow UofT online  instructor Michelle Berry, she admitted she was curious too. So here’s what’s happening: she’s sending me  some probing questions (not too probing, I hope), and I’m going to answer them here soon.

She’s not getting off that easily, though. This fall, we’ll reverse roles: I’ll interview Michelle, instructor to instructor, editor to writer.

This is going to be fun.


*I continue to be an adviser for Final Project Tutorials, the final course required for the UofT SCS Creative Writing Certificate.

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Allyson Latta Talks Memoir Tonight on TVO’s The Agenda

This is kind of exciting. Journalist Nam Kiwanuka of TVO’s The Agenda  interviewed me as part of a weeklong series on  memoir writing.

My interview airs tonight, August 8, 2016, at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. There will also be a link available on the TVO website for later viewing.

I hope you’ll tune in.


Journalist Nam Kiwanuka with editor and writing instructor Allyson Latta


Monday, August 8th, 2016

“There was a writer living inside me”: Interview with memoirist Cea Sunrise Person (part 1)

News: Plum Johnson will be my guest for the Winter session of Memories into Story: Life Writing II (online advanced workshop), at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She’s the author of the bestselling and RBC Taylor Prize–winning memoir They Left Us Everything and a former student in Memories into Story II. The next course begins online on January 11. Space is limited. (Check out “Women’s Voices Are Crucial” on this website.)

♦     ♦     ♦


Cea Sunrise Person

Cea Sunrise Person


CEA SUNRISE PERSON is a returning guest of Memories into Story and a favourite with my students. I had the pleasure of copy editing her bestselling memoir, North of Normal, and I was sure she’d have insights aplenty to share. Thanks to Cea, once again, for her considered and candid answers, and to each of my students — though I wasn’t able to include all their questions here — for their input. What follows is an edited version of one class’s collaborative interview (part 1).


Cea, did you always know that you would be a writer, or was your path more indirect?

Both! Let’s say that I’ve always known there was a writer living inside of me, even as a child, and then later, much more strongly, in my teens and twenties. The funny thing is, I didn’t write a thing during that time . . . I was busy with modelling, marriages, and dealing with my issues, and I used to write in my head a lot, but never on paper. I just knew the day would come when I was ready to finally write my life story down, and I was right. As it turned out, it took a deep frustration and unhappiness with where my life was at in my late thirties to get to that point. Read more about that in my second book!


How long did it take you to write North of Normal? Was it done over long periods of time or in one shot?

It took me six years to write and about twenty-five to thirty drafts. This was done in sporadic starts and stops. But my second memoir took me less than a year and three drafts — proof that writing is a skill that gets much easier with practice.


Did you approach a publisher before you had written your book or after you were ready to present a first draft? And how many publishers did you meet before HarperCollins agreed to publish North of Normal?

For a first-time author, it is very difficult to sell a memoir on a book proposal. I knew this going in, so decided to write the whole draft before trying to get a literary agent, who in turn seeks out the publishing deal. I did, however, have some false starts. I actually queried agents after I’d completed my first draft, which was a mess, and as a result, no agent wanted it. I rewrote, and one year later got an agent. I was super excited and thought it was all but a done deal, but my book was rejected by every publisher in New York. Disheartened to say the least, I nonetheless had a lingering suspicion that I could still do a lot better in my writing.

I proceeded to write many more drafts over the next few years, until I really felt in my heart and soul that it was as good as I could make it. When I queried agents that time, I got offers from five within a week! After signing with my dream agent, my agent submitted my book to Canadian publishers, and HarperCollins bought it in a pre-empt (taking it off the market before any other publisher can offer a competing offer). It then sold to HarperCollins USA in a bidding war among three American publishers. This was by far my dream scenario and does not always happen, but I can tell you that I held very tightly to my dream through all the rejections, and was determined that I would find success with my book even if I was still querying agents on my deathbed!


Why did you want to tell your story? For whom did you write it?                       

My reasons for writing my story changed over time. In the beginning, it was definitely born of a need to try to make sense of my past and the people who had raised me, who were so different from me. In my late thirties, when I started writing it, I still had a lot of anger toward them, unanswered questions about myself, and a lingering, low self-esteem that I was pretty sure had roots in my early childhood. I was hoping that writing would offer insight and healing. It did — but also so much more. As I moved through that process and began to allow more space in the world for myself while my confidence built, I realized that my true calling was actually to write the story for others — people who may have had similar experiences in the counterculture, or who simply understood what it was like to feel they didn’t fit in with society or their own family. Judging from the overwhelming number of messages I’ve received from grateful readers, my instinct that there were many of us out there was correct — and being able to connect with them and offer them hope has been my proudest accomplishment with this book.


How did decide how the memoir would play out?

For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing my first book. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up. This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing. I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book. Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.

My second memoir I wrote mostly as separate, non-chronological scenes that I then connected together, so either way can work. For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude! Also, since I did a lot of deleting of some original scenes, I needed to go back and fill in new ones, so a lot of it was written out of order. I really do believe that any method can work, as long as it is working for you.


Given that you had no formal writing experience before penning North of Normal, what supports — personal/inner or otherwise — did you rely upon to keep plugging away at it, not knowing if it would lead anywhere?

I can only say that I had a strong instinct that if I could get my story right, it would be successful. I felt that my story was too unique not to tell. All the same, there were many times I was frustrated enough to want to quit. Wanting to quit is fine — just don’t act on it! I’m lucky that I have always been a tenacious person by nature who likes to see things through, but I must say that six years of writing and rejection tested that to the max. I have a very supportive husband who believed in my project, and I asked friends who did a lot of memoir reading to read my drafts. They really encouraged me to keep going, which helped a lot.


What is your creative writing process? Do you write every day, at certain times of the day, keep a notebook, go for walks to generate ideas, freewrite?

Hahaha! Seriously, my writing process is a joke. Before I started writing, I always had this idea that the house had to be quiet and perfectly clean, the grocery shopping done, and my mind clear to be able to do it. When I finally realized that this ideal likely to never happen, I decided to just dive in anyway and see what happened. What happened was a lot! When I started writing my book I had a one-year-old, no childcare, and a design company that I ran from home. When I finished writing it, I had a baby, a two-year-old, a seven-year-old, and no childcare. I was chronically sleep-deprived, so I could not do early morning or evening writing. As a result, I learned to write in the eye of the storm, with a lot going on around me. I would write notes on my phone throughout the day, when they occurred to me, about things I wanted to change or include in my story, and then consult that list when I finally got to sit down and write. It was incredibly frustrating, but also a gift, because I have learned to get “into” my story within seconds and can pound out a paragraph in a few minutes. My husband would often give me a few hours over the weekend when he would take the kids out of my hair, which was of course my most productive time, but the bottom line is, I never would have finished the book if I hadn’t learned to write in ten-minute increments. North of Normal took me six years to complete. I wrote my second book in exactly the same manner, and it took me less than a year — which goes to show how we can train our brains to do anything.

Freewriting is a wonderful tool for many, but it has never worked for me. Because I am very outcome-oriented, I need to write with a specific reward in mind, and that reward is always creating a scene that I am excited to read back to myself. But that’s just me — it’s important that all of us writers learn what works for us.


How much research did you do in order to properly describe geographic places, topographical details, etc.? Or did you simply work from memory and/or photographs?

I did not do a ton of research. Mostly, I relied on memories and photos. I was also required to change some location names. A few times, I did go on Google Earth to look at topography.


Approximately how much of your memoir is “truth” as you remember it, and how much is “creative writing”?

The way I write is to always stick to the integrity of truth when it comes to the actual event, and to fill it in with creative writing details. In other words, all of the scenes in my book a hundred percent happened, and of course I’ve never fictionalized or hybridized characters. There is, however, a lot of fiction in my settings, i.e., time of day, weather, scenery, dialogue. It’s impossible to remember all of this, and yet ironically, these details are needed to add credibility to a memoir. Many names, physical features, and locations were also changed in my book. Some of the chronology is off, as even my mother couldn’t remember all of our nomadic moves. I think that it’s fine to do the best you can in these situations. Memoir is about recording the truly memorable and meaningful experiences in our lives and how they affected us, and I think that if you always stay true to that, the details will almost fill themselves in.


Did you ever feel a conflict between your truth and your imperative to tell your story or how it may impact on others you wrote about?

Absolutely. This is such a tough subject and fine line in memoir writing. What I ultimately decided was that a) many people in the book had either passed on or couldn’t be identified unless they identified themselves, b) humanizing them by revealing both their positive and negative traits in an objective way left for little argument in the court of truth, and c) if you’re going to do bad shit in your life, you may have to live with the consequences — like someone else writing about it in a memoir!

Having said that, I actually did NOT reveal all. It all had to do with my level of comfort, because I can’t measure anyone else’s. After writing a few scenes, I checked in with myself and realized that I did not feel good or comfortable with what I had written. This was my cue to hit the delete button — which I did, several times.


Is there a primary theme, a fundamental human dilemma that you are orbiting around, delving into, in all your writing?

I feel like I have so many varied experiences in my life that I can find one or more to suit almost any theme. I am, however, forever fascinated by the mother–child bond, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the subject of childhood resilience, so I definitely gravitate toward these themes in my writing. There is no way I can write about a topic that doesn’t interest me, such as politics or finance! I find it interesting to explore the spiritual world and karmic energy and how they relate to the choices we make and circumstances we find ourselves in as human beings, so a lot of my writing has to do with looking for those answers. This may not be obvious to the reader, because I don’t wish to engage in a debate with anyone who feels they do have the answers. I definitely don’t, but I appreciate the luxury of being able to explore and express my own views on the topic, however subtly.


Did you find some parts of your book harder to write than others? If so, what parts and why?

It’s funny, because the hardest parts are not what you’d expect. Some parts I LOVED writing — all the scenes with Karl, for example, because he was such an interesting and ultimately big-hearted character. I loved reliving all the wilderness stuff with my grandparents, and I enjoyed writing about the modelling. Even the stuff about Barry molesting me wasn’t really difficult for me write about. The hardest part for me was the period right after we moved to Calgary, before I started modelling. This time in my life feels like a well of hopelessness and powerlessness, even today, because I had lost my mother to her married boyfriend, and I finally realized that I was helpless to force her to parent me. I was very unhappy and saw my future as bleak. I desperately wanted escape from my family but wasn’t sure how to go about it at such a young age. I realized my grandfather was a total narcissist concerned with little more than his own desires. I had few friends at school and felt like a freak from the wilderness. Reliving all of this through my writing was very unpleasant for me, and as a result it took me many rewrites to get it to an acceptable place. Each time that point in the book came up, I would skim over it and move on and procrastinate some more, because I hated how it made me feel. But I do believe that if a subject doesn’t evoke an emotion in you as a writer, it’s probably not worth writing about.

There’s more:  read Part 2 of Cea’s interview.

 ♦     ♦     ♦

CEA SUNRISE PERSON’s bestselling first book, North of Normal (HarperCollins), chronicles her wilderness childhood and dramatic move into a decades-long modelling career at age thirteen. She makes regular appearances at book clubs and other venues to speak about her unique life, and teaches memoir writing at the university and secondary school levels. After living in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Munich, and Milan, she is now happily settled in Vancouver with her husband and three young children. Her second memoir, a follow-up to North of Normal,will be released by HarperCollins in early 2017.

North of Normal is currently on sale throughout Canada, USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Find out where it’s available here.

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Off the Shelf: Greg Walker on recognizing “the sacred meeting place of memory and reality”


West Coast Trail (Photo credit: Parks Canada)


My fingers dug into the smooth trunk of the beast as I searched in vain for a handgrip. I pointed my feet and dug my knees in hard, but there was no movement forward. My bare thighs quivered and locked up, victims of fear and cold. The spray from crashing waves sent icy fingers over my legs, pulling me toward the boiling stew of kelp below. Over the ocean’s roar, I heard a hiker’s desperate yell: “Keep moving! Keep MO-VING!” [read the full Facts & Arguments essay here]

Those are the dramatic opening lines from Greg Walker’s personal essay on taking risks and finding balance in life, recently published in the Globe and Mail Facts & Arguments section. A past student in both my Memories into Story courses through University of Toronto, he’s now at work on a series of essays that will form his Final Project for the Creative Writing Certificate.

I asked Greg to talk about how this essay came to be and about his writing journey so far. I hope you’ll find his words as inspiring as I do.

Off the Shelf

I’m flipping through the memories that sit in rows on the dusty shelves of my mind. They’re arranged in different boxes, like Dad’s old vinyl records in my garage. And like the albums, I never get tired of replaying the well-worn favorites. But it’s the rare surprise of rediscovering a near-forgotten one that I savour the most.

They start with the first day of school. Then waking up in the hospital after getting my tonsils out. There’s learning to ride a bike. Coke from a little glass bottle on a hot summer day. The AM radio in Mom’s kitchen pumping out 70s songs before they were classics. Terry Fox hopping down the main street of my hometown on his artificial leg.

When I was nine or ten, I got a little diary for Christmas. It was bound with green faux leather, the word “Diary” etched in golden script on the spine. A tiny built-in lock kept the precious contents from prying eyes. As I made my dutiful entries, I fantasized about it being found one day and becoming a bestselling book. Like many childhood dreams, the weight of the required discipline eventually sank it out of my thoughts.


One middle-aged day, I signed up for an introductory writing course at a local university. My employer was paying because it was “job enhancing.”

One and done, I thought. “Mid-life crisis,” others whispered.

But the literary water found the dormant seed that had drifted to the bottom of my consciousness. I signed up for more courses. Then a memoir course. And another.

My first published story started as one of those dusty recollections in my mind’s eye. I traced the string of memory back to an event that had triggered a dramatic change in my life: crossing an ocean surge channel while hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island.

The first step in writing the story was the “downdraft.” Documenting the raw details. “Telling the story to yourself” is how Stephen King puts it in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That first draft was a rambling, disjointed tale.

The next step used the practical lessons from the writing courses. Open with a strong hook. Use believable dialogue. Watch for continuity and avoid bad flashbacks. Use action. Move the characters around. Make it relevant to others. Mix in something historical.

Next came the grinding torture of self-editing.

Word search for ly to find all the adverbs. Rewrite.

Read the story out loud. Rewrite.

Read it like a writer. Rewrite.

Enter punctuation purgatory. Rewrite.

The story was still rough after a few days and more than a dozen versions. But the course deadline loomed.

I uploaded the story for the dreaded peer review. When three or more students suggested a change, I swallowed my pride and took it. If only one or two picked at something, I filed it under consideration.

After adding the final edits from my instructor, I submitted the story to a national contest. It was the worst thing I could have done. Not because it didn’t make the short list, but because the contest rules held the story captive for six months after the submission date. I couldn’t send it anywhere else.

My other mistake was to show it to my father. Never one to shower praise, he didn’t deviate this time.

“Hmm, pretty good little story,” he said, speed reading through before going back to Google Maps.

The story took its place on the shelf with my other dusty memories.

After finishing the second memoir course, I took time off from writing. But I continued to follow this website and blog. It’s my own personal Narnia, the secret place where memories grow wings and fly.

Clicking through the posts one day, I saw a section on the recent publishing successes of other past students. Their stories were exceptional, and they sparked something within me.

It was time.

I dug out my “West Coast story,” already a bony skeleton at 1,250 words. To submit it to the national paper, it had to be 900 words or less. So I cut and hacked until I despaired there was nothing left that made it mine.

But it worked.

I heard back the next day and accepted the contractual requirements. They commissioned an illustration and told me the date it would run. A few days later, the editor suggested some changes for a final polish.

Did the ruthless editing make it more palatable? I’m not sure.

But somewhere among the hundreds of posts and readings of my courses I made a discovery. Memoir done well is like a perfect photo of a mountain reflected in a shimmering lake. You’re never sure if you’ve got the photo upside down or not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the sacred meeting place of memory and reality, where the past sparks inspiration for the future. I’m thankful that the spark was entrusted to me.

The next chapter’s up to you.

♦     ♦     ♦

Greg Walker with niece Avery

GREG WALKER was born and raised in Thornhill, Ontario, and aspired to a career in fine art and photography. After briefly attending OCAD University in Toronto, he took a year off to work and reflect before settling at the University of Guelph. While there, he completed a bachelor’s degree with a dual focus on Biochemistry and Art History. A career with a major international food company has allowed him to travel widely while remaining rooted in the Toronto area.

After reflecting on a season of life’s suffering, during which his wife lost two of her three sisters to cancer, he felt compelled to reawaken his earlier dream of creative writing. While pursuing the University of Toronto Certificate in Creative Writing, he landed in the Memories into Story I and II courses, which he credits with releasing his true writer’s voice. He is now completing the requirements for the final course towards the Certificate.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015